Maryland's plan to limit crabbing later this week comes at the last minute, but not too late for the migrating female crabs it aims to protect. Their peak travel time to the lower bay to bury themselves and their fertilized eggs is in September and October, the time when they are most vulnerable to the crab pot and trotline.
By closing the crab fishery two days a week after Thursday and ending the season 45 days early (on Nov. 15), state officials hope to reduce the female crab harvest by 20 percent. Restrictions next year to end the season Oct. 31 and eliminate one day of crabbing a week should result in a 40 percent reduction in the annual female catch.
Biologists and watermen have wavered over whether tighter crab limits were needed this year. The computerized "stock assessment" of the Chesapeake blue crabs by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was expected to guide the decision but that study is months delayed.
So the state has taken action, challenging Virginia to take similar conservation steps, by curbing both recreational and commercial crabbing opportunities over the next 14 months. A General Assembly legislative oversight committee will review the emergency rules, which should be approved.
Winter surveys of the bay's floor show a 47 percent decline in the number of mature females, while the commercial catch of females in September-October has more than doubled since 1992, the Department of Natural Resources reports.
The hope is that this limited pre-emptive move will forestall a drastic outright moratorium, which was used for two other important, threatened bay denizens -- rockfish and migratory Canada geese.
The blue crab population in the bay has been trending downward, although it is too soon to say the species is on the verge of collapse. Crabbing pressures have increased, certainly, but the vagaries of weather play a major role in the cyclical viability of the clawed crustacean.
The major concern is to protect reproductive females, even if the state recovery plan does not directly limit catches of "sooks", or females; the Eastern Shore picking industry relies heavily on catches of migrating females for its fall supply.
The figures from commercial catches of females this year and next will help to direct future decisions, as will trawling and dredge surveys. Rules imposed earlier this year capped the number of commercial crab pots and working hours; a plan to license recreational crabbers was killed.
Early warning signs of the rockfish's peril were ignored until a total catch ban was needed. This crab plan, though painful to many Marylanders, responds in more prudent advance measure.